Brian Eno Shares His Critical Take on Art & NFTs: “I Mainly See Hustlers Looking for Suckers”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

It can feel, in our inequality-addled world, that we have little left in common — that there is no “we,” just us and them. But multiple crises driving us apart have the potential to unite the species. After all, a rapidly warming planet and global pandemic do threaten us all, even if they don’t threaten us equally. Do solutions exist in the creation of new forms of private property, new ways of moving capital around the world? Can the extinction-level byproducts of capitalist commodification and waste be mitigated by ingenious new forms of financialization? These seem to be the arguments made by purveyors of cryptocurrency and NFTs, an acronym meaning non fungible tokens and — if you haven’t noticed — the only thing anyone in the art world seems to talk about anymore. Why?

Brian Eno has put his opinion on the matter quite bluntly in a recent interview. “NFTs seem to me just a way for artists to get a little piece of the action from global capitalism,” he tells The Crypto Syllabus. “How sweet — now artists can become little capitalist assholes as well.” He obviously disapproves of using art solely to generate profit, but then if we know anything about Eno’s theory of creativity and influence over the past several decades, it’s that he believes the guiding reason for art is to generate more art.

“If I had primarily wanted to make money I would have had a different career as a different kind of person. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to be an artist.” There’s utterly no use in trying to peg Eno as technophobic or out of touch; quite the contrary. But the fictional financial products that have invaded every other sphere of life have no place in the arts, he argues.

When asked why NFTs are touted as a salvation for artists and the art world by cryptocurrency visionaries, including many of his friends and collaborators, Eno replies:

I can understand why the people who’ve done well from it are pleased, and it’s natural enough in a libertarian world to believe that something that benefits you must automatically be ‘right’ for the whole world. That belief is a version of what I call ‘automaticism’: the idea that if you leave things alone and let something or other – the market, nature, human will – take its course unimpeded you will automatically get a better result than you would by tinkering with it. The people who hold beliefs of this kind don’t have any qualms about tinkering themselves but just want a situation where nobody else gets to tinker. Especially the state.

That the sale of NFTs have only benefitted very few — to the tune of $69 million in a single sale in a recent high-profile case — doesn’t seem particularly troublesome to those who insist on their benefits. Nor do the creators of NFTs seem bothered by the enormous energy overhead required by the technology, “an ecological nightmare pyramid scheme,” writes Synthtopia — of which Eno says: “in a warming world a new technology that uses vast amounts of energy as ‘proof of work’ — that’s to say, simply to establish a certain age of exclusivity — really is quite insane.”

Eno readily answers questions about why NFTs seem so glamorous — it’s no great mystery, just a new form of accumulation, commodification and waste, one in particular that adds nothing to the world while hastening a climate collapse. NFTs are the “readymade reversed,” David Joselit argues: Where “Duchamp used the category of art to liberate materiality from commodifiable form; the NFT deploys the category of art to extract private property from freely available information.”

The discourse around NFTs also seems to liberate art from the category of art, and all that has meant to humankind for millennia as a communal practice, reducing creative productions to digital certificates of authenticity. “I am trying to keep an open mind about these questions,” Eno admits. “People I like and trust are convinced [NFTs] are the best thing since sliced bread, so I wish I could have a more positive view but right now I mainly see hustlers looking for suckers.”

Related Content: 

What are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)? And How Can a Work of Digital Art Sell for $69 Million

What Is Blockchain? Three Videos Explain the New Technology That Promises to Change Our World

Cryptocurrency and Blockchain: An Introduction to Digital Currencies–A Free Online Courses from the University of Pennsylvania 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (11)
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  • Glenn Anderson says:

    I did not see Mr. Eno ever complain about receiving royalties for his music creations. Now artists and creators have a similar system in place suddenly there is no place for them in this world. A glaring contradiction on his part.

  • peter a primavera says:

    Do you know that to be true or are you guessing. Do you know what he did with royalties or guessing.

    I guess exoring ambient music was his play for profit. Let’s all hum I a bit of Muscic for Airports now.

    That and the total misunderstanding his point and intgrity of are sadly evident

    And the system is not remotely similar. Who is gaining the most profits from nuts? Artists?

  • Alex says:

    Typical boomer hypocrite, he just sold limited edition mediocre record players, so maybe he is upset his grift isn’t as successful? Price it for the people or STFU. Os music for airports was boring

  • Bosa Nova says:

    Well, Alex, your taste in music is as suspect as your critical reasoning skills.

    NFTs and their crypto-ilk are pyramid schemes. Period.

  • Mick Malkemus says:

    To think that a few well placed pixels are worth money once they become NFTs is an affront to art. Who ever is left holding the bag when the merry-go-round stops is going to be very shocked their great “investment” is worth zero.
    A sucker is born every minute.

  • Matthew Smith says:

    I think that’s true of Web 3.0.

  • Zach says:

    Couldn’t make it past the first paragraph. So jam packed with leftist alarmism. It’s weird how people feel compelled to state their ideologies before getting to a point. It’s very cultish behavior.

  • William M. Neal says:

    Isn’t everything an abhorrent cult, or subscription these days? You were always meant for selling/sharing your self to the greater world? Can you exist in it without? You need to eat, clothe, and shelter your self, your family. Do you kill self and the world in the process? Does it even work, or shall we just amble along and modestly dwell? Not everyone has a voice or a great impact. It means everything and nothing to sing to the world, which either hears you at large or does not.

  • Joe says:

    Leftist alarmism? Cultish behaviour? Sounds like the ramblings of a fascist lemming. Who told you to say that, Alex Jones or Sean Hannity? Original thought is impossible from “Schmecks” like you…

  • Bony says:

    Hustlers and suckers… the entire history of the USA.

  • BTRBT says:

    It’s really quite exhausting, always hearing politically connected multi-millionaires pontificate like this. Calling people “assholes” for their optimism about the potential of a more libertarian future (compared to state-enforced monopolies), or peacefully trying to earn a living for themselves.

    The vague platitudes like “tinkering” with the economic system are also really tiresome, given how often they’re just code for men with guns seizing assets from one group, to allocate to some other politically-favored group (often the allocators themselves).

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